Gail Fisher's Dog Tracks: A look at context could explain a dog's language miscues
You might have heard about Chaser, a border collie who recognizes more than 1,000 words. It took the researchers three years to teach that extensive vocabulary, teaching it with a successive approach, setting Chaser up for success (much like the marker training we use).
Chaser's training might be exceptional, but the average trained dog usually recognizes well over 100 words. Most pet dogs recognize words such as outside, ride, walk, dinner, car and cookie, as well as manners cues such as sit, down, stay and come. Because dogs learn from repetition and association, any word that you use consistently will be learned by your dog. Because I regularly say, "hop up" for get in the car, as well as "get in back" when he climbs into the front seat, my dog Kochi understands these words.
I remember once when I was playing with my Beardie, Mayday. There were five toys in the room, a squeaky toy and four balls - a tennis ball, a ball on a rope, a small rubber soccer ball and a rubber baseball (obviously Mayday liked balls). I said, "Get the ball," figuring he'd go for the closest and most visible, which was the soccer ball. But he ran right past two others to pick up the tennis ball.
Surprised, I performed a test. I rearranged the balls, making the tennis ball even less accessible. Again, "Get the ball" resulted in his getting the tennis ball. Clearly, to Mayday, the tennis ball was the one named "ball."
How did Mayday learn this association? After all to us, a "ball" can be a small rubber toy in a game of Jacks, a big iron wrecking ball or the ball of fire we call the sun. If it's spherical, it's a "ball." Not so to dogs.
How Mayday learned that the tennis ball was called "the ball" came about when we played retrieve. I'd throw a tennis ball, and if he failed to bring it back or couldn't find it, I referred to it as "the ball." "Find the ball." "Get the ball." So the tennis ball was named "the ball." But dogs don't generalize the same as we do, so "the ball" didn't refer to other balls (at least not when "the ball" was around).
We often take for granted that our dogs have learned what we thought we were teaching, but that isn't always true. Many different things affect the lesson the dog is learning, often totally different from our intention. One of the biggest influences on the dog's learning is the context of the lesson, which becomes part and parcel of the learned behavior.
Here's another example from the annals of "Mayday History" to clarify this:
I was presenting at a seminar a few years ago, relaxing between sessions, sitting kind of slouched in the chair talking with some of the participants. Mayday, who had been lying quietly by my side, got up asking to be petted. I said, "Sit." He lay down. I signaled him to sit up, and he did. A few days later, in a different place, a similar thing happened. I was sitting in a relaxed posture, I told him to sit, and he lay down. What was going on? Could it be that Mayday didn't really understand what "sit" means?
So I tried some different postures to see what would happen. I sat up straight and tried it. He sat. I stood and asked him to sit. He did. I half reclined and asked for a sit. He lay down. Aha! I was onto something. For some reason, my relaxed posture was a cue for lying down on the command, "sit." How did he learn that? (Put another way: How did I teach him that?)
I realized that when I was relaxing at home - feet up, half reclined - if Mayday came over to be petted and I said, "sit," sometimes he would lie down. And guess what? I, the professional dog trainer - who was simply not paying attention - would pet him, reinforcing his lying down on the cue "sit." After a few repetitions, Mayday learned the context: When Gail is relaxed and says, "sit," it means lie down. "Sit" when Gail is upright, means sit. The context took precedence over the cue word.
So the next time your dog does something totally different from what you expected, ask yourself if maybe he learned it in a different context - or maybe "the ball" isn't just any old ball. Not only do we need to recognize the differences between people from Mars and Venus, but also our wonderful friends from Pluto.
Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. If you would like a topic addressed in this column, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write c/o All Dogs Gym & Inn, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. You'll find past columns on her website.